Former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, now a professor at Victoria College, recently gave a talk for students coinciding with International Women’s Day 2023. (Photo by Minh Truong)
By Joe Howell
“I’m often asked what it was like to be the first female premier of Ontario,” said the Hon. Kathleen Wynne, pausing on stage at the Isabel Bader Theatre on March 8. “It’s difficult to answer because I was never a male premier.”
Wynne’s talk to Victoria College students, titled “Why are we still having this conversation? The current state of misogyny in politics and beyond,” coincided with International Women’s Day 2023. In it, she reflected on her journey from young activist and athlete to politician, the rampant sexism she’s experienced throughout her life, and the progress we have—or haven’t—made toward gender equality.
“I learned to walk down the middle of our empty lit street to get home when I was walking alone as a 12-year-old,” she told the audience. As a teenager, “I was an opinionated, often angry, active member of school government fighting for more voice for students in the 1960s.” And as a high school athlete, Wynne “learned the way women’s sport is devalued. That power gap was real and it was symbolic of the same in every sphere of life.”
As she entered politics, that gap never disappeared no matter how high she climbed. “Over those 22 years as a school trustee, MPP, minister and premier, I have spent countless hours in mostly male rooms,” Wynne said. “I have had male leaders look past me to my male staffers assuming that they must be in charge; I have had friends express shock that I ascended to the premier’s chair because I was ‘just a mom.’”
Wynne now teaches at Victoria College, where she leads a seminar in the Chambers Stream of the Vic One program as the Hon. Newton W. Rowell Professor. (Vic One is designed to highlight the meaningful dialogue that can take place in a small classroom setting, offering a distinctive academic experience for first-year students.) Wynne spoke as the latest guest lecturer in the weekly Vic One Plenary session, held every Wednesday at 4 p.m.
In her discussion of widening economic and social inequities and the barriers women face in both public and private life, she acknowledged the challenges and frustrations that still await woman leaders. “I never could have imagined all those years ago there would be so many issues that still haven’t been resolved. I’ll be honest with you, I thought we’d be farther along.”
She pointed to recent examples of harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the news. “Take a look at the video of two of the ‘Freedom Convoy’ leaders making vile comments about Anaida Poilievre, Pierre Poilievre’s wife.” She also cited footage of a “large, intimidating man shouting at Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland in Alberta,” the firing of Lisa LaFlamme from CTV in part because she dared to let her hair go grey, and “the chorus of mostly male voices that urged John Tory to stay as mayor of Toronto” even after he admitted he had been in an inappropriate relationship. These are not isolated incidents, said Wynne. Rather, “they are indicative of systemic attitudes that have been slow to change.”
But she counselled the audience not to lose hope. “None of this should keep us down, divide us or take us into despair.” She encouraged young women to pursue politics and leadership, not despite the inequality, but because of it. “If you are angry or hurt by injustice, that’s a reasonable response. My advice is to try to use that as fuel for action.” She cited her experiences as a woman driving her determination to implement legislation against sexual harassment in the workplace.
Wynne discussed the unique perspectives she gained as a daughter, a sister and a mother, and how she endeavoured to bring her “whole self” to the table in all professional roles. “I learned as I went through my life that we were not encouraged to do that, especially as women. That whole self meant we might talk about caregiving, we might talk about children, we might talk about elder care—we might talk about something that is uncomfortable to the people in the room.”
There are great reasons to do it anyway, she said. “In politics, boardrooms and other places where decisions are being made, we need a diversity of views, so that 'whole person' is really important.”
As she took questions from the audience, addressing some former students by name, her love of teaching was clear.
After the lecture, Vic One student Mackenzie D’Andrea said she was inspired by Wynne’s journey. “She showed how women, especially queer women, can be in the places we’re not ‘supposed’ to be—but we should be there regardless.”
Vic One student Jack Baker told us about his time in “Prosperity, Justice and Sustainability: Introduction to Public Policy,” Wynne’s class in the Chambers Stream. “I want to go into politics one day, and it was amazing to get her first-hand experiences. There were only about 14 of us, so we got to have individual conversations and questions with her, and really great group discussions.”